HISTORY OF THE INDUSTRY GADFLY AND GUIDE
With Revealing Personal Testimony Appended
THE HISTORY of The Comics Journal and its various publishing enterprises is retailed in a doorstop of a recent book: We Told You So: Comics As Art—An Oral History of Fantagraphics Books by Tom Spurgeon and Michael Dean (696 8x10-inch pages, b/w and color; 2016 Fantagraphics Books hardcover, $49.99). The book is perhaps best described as being almost 2 inches thick and weighing five pounds. And these dimensions are achieved on ordinary matt-finish paper, not glossy, weighty stuff. In other words, the paper on which this tome is printed is thin, not fat, which makes the weight of the book even more descriptive. Otherwise, the title and cascading subtitles pretty thoroughly tell us what is here.
It’s one hell of a lot of interviews—mostly with publisher Gary Groth and his late partner Kim Thompson but also including Eric Reynolds over the last few years and Mike Catron from the early years when he was Groth’s partner, co-publisher and co-founder of the magazine of comics news and criticism that sought to set the world free of garbage funnybooks about anatomically superior beings in colorful tights.
Even though those are the chief witnesses whose testimony was taken, whatever they say is augmented by scores of others, those who wandered into staff jobs at Fantagraphics (sometimes very briefly) or who made contributions to the magazine. I’ve been a regular (in nearly ever issue) contributor for almost forty years, but I appear in only two short quotes in the book. I don’t know where they got the quotes. They sound like something I said, but I can’t remember when or where I might have said these things in a form that enabled Spurgeon to find them.
after page of mostly short excerpts from long interviews are profusely
illustrated with photographs of Groth and others of the Fanta crew in revealing
(albeit non-erotic) circumstances, drawings, caricatures, comic strips about
Fantagraphics and/or comics criticism, cartoons, magazine covers, copies of
pages from the Journal and other Fanta publications and other visual
ephemera—including the cover of Groth’s first fanzine, Fantastic Fanzine,
produced in 1968 when he was only 14. Visually, the book is a monster
scrapbook, expertly edited and ingeniously designed not thrown together in the
usual manner of scrapbooks.
Anecdotally, the interviews are divided into chapters that rehearse the history of the company in chronological order with testimony from (or stories about) most of the notables in the profession as well as those published, eventually, by Fantagraphics—Art Spiegelman, Gil Kane, Joe Sacco, Dan Clowes, the Bros Hernandez, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Peter Bagge, Robert Crumb and the undergrounds, Roberta Gregory, Denis Kitchen, Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith, Bob Fingerman, Carol Tyler, Chris Ware, Stan Sakai, Jim Woodring, Dame Darcy, Ralph Steadman, Roger Landridge and more, many many more.
In addition to the Journal, Fantagraphics began fairly early publishing occasional collections of comics or comics-related publications that demonstrated the sort of “art” Groth and Catron and Thompson wanted to find in comics. Said Thompson: “We always saw the undergrounds as the direct precursors to what we were doing, so all those collections we did were a natural next step.”
The histories of a few such early productions are rehearsed herein, and we eventually get to Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez and Love and Rockets, which exemplified “comics as art” as far as the Fanta crew were concerned. Along the way, we get glimpses into Amazing Heroes (the mainstream fan periodical), Nemo (histories of comic strips mostly), and Prime Cuts (“Raw done right,” Groth pronounced).
The history includes descriptions of the various “offices” the magazine has occupied. After an inaugural year or so being produced in Groth’s apartment near the University of Maryland (where he was once a journalism major), he started renting houses, parts of which would be converted to editorial working spaces, the remainder to living quarters for Groth, Thompson and a couple of others.
The first of these establishments was in Stamford, Connecticut, starting in about 1978. (Dates are in short supply in the book: instead of a date, a new event or adventure is introduced with a narrative “and then....”) A half-dozen years later, they moved to Los Angeles— as Groth explained, in order to be close to the movie business where they could expect to make deals for publications; never worked out that way. By the time of the move, the company had accumulated enough inventory of publications and production equipment that it took 4 28-foot Ryder trucks to make the trek. Fanta staffers drove the trucks. Five years later (in about 1989), when they moved to Seattle, they again required 4 trucks, but this time, they hired professional drivers. In Seattle, they set up in the house they’re still in on Lake City Way near the University District and, much later, opened a bookstore to sell Fanta books and other comics-related stuff.
In Los Angeles, Groth changed their modus operandi: the company worked out of one house, and its top echelon staff lived in another. He bought the houses, and when they left for Seattle, it was the height of a housing boom: he sold them for enough to buy two houses in their new location, one for work and the other, a duplex, for living in.
From the beginning in Groth’s Maryland apartment, the office hours were nonexistent: people worked all the time, day and night, until they fell asleep; when they woke up, they returned to the work. Sometimes, maybe once a month or so, they had a party. But it sounds to me like life at Fantagraphics was pretty much just a relentless grind.
And there was, for the longest time, no money except for essentials—buying food, paying the rent and the printer. Groth, Catron and Thompson drew no salaries from their company. For several of the early years, they all had day jobs. Groth worked as an office temp; he could type 100 words/minute.
Some of the detail recalled in the interviews is too insignificant to matter much, and some of it is missing altogether. I looked last night in vain for something that might shed insightful light on Groth’s celebrated attack on Alan Light and The Buyer’s Guide for Comic Fandom. I saw nothing. Something might be there, but I didn’t see it. I guess Groth was just pissed that Light ran TBG in the way he did, which was, not to mince words, dispicable.
In the first (No.27, August 1976) Fantagraphics issue of The Nostalgia Journal, The Comics Journal’s ancestral predecessor, Groth exposed Light’s ruthlessness and chicanery. Among other things, Light would accept no advertising from any other enterprise in fandom that threatened to be a competitor of TBG. And since TBG was fandom’s biggest, most frequently appearing publication, Light’s policy effectively limited all growth in fandom to his publication. And he also tried to sabotage outright any perceived competitor. Groth’s editorial was a long scathing indictment of Light and his unscrupulous practices.
No one in fandom had ever committed anything like Groth’s attack. It was akin to “investigative journalism” in its most cutthroat mode. It went on for several pages. And in my vague grasp of such things, I think it established The Comics Journal, which name The Nostalgia Journal assumed five issues later with No.32.
Later in the book, Groth quotes a blistering valedictorial for Light that he wrote at the time Krause acquired TBG in about 1983. “Light’s major achievement, aside from making himself rich, was that of being comics fandom’s first real business predator. His business practices may have been execrable, but his commitment to journalistic standards and critical thought was equally appalling, running the gamut from indifference to downright swinishness. His career of hustling is a monument to selfish opportunism and spiritual squalor, the kind of overnight American success story revered by the envious and deified by moneyed barbarians.”
Light sued; but eventually dropped the suit when it became apparent that Groth had a file on Light that would support and justify everything he said as legitimate opinion well within the realm of free speech.
(I was about to be sued once for something I’d written: Maurice Horn threatened over a review of his 100 Years of American Newspaper Comics that I did for Inks, the scholarly comics studies journal published by the Cartoon Library at Ohio State University. I called his book a fraud, full of error and misguided opinion. Horn threatened to sue, but when the OSU lawyers were told about it, they laughed. Whatever I said was expression of opinion supported by sufficient examples to make it fair game. The same was true of Groth and his attack on Light. Both Horn and Light backed off. Incidentally, Inks is being revived and my review of Horn’s book will be reprinted in the reincarnation.)
Another early episode in the Journal’s history was the lawsuit filed by Michael Fleisher, a writer for DC, against Groth, the Journal, and sf author Harlan Ellison, charging them with libel, slander and defamation of character. During an interview in No.53 conducted by Groth, Ellison had said Fleisher was “crazy,” “bugfuck” and “certifiable”—which, Ellison admitted in the next breath, was “a libelous thing to say, and I say it with some humor.”
He also clearly intended, from the context of the conversation, to compliment Fleisher. who wrote some pretty weird stories (in one of which, the protagonist of a comic book series, Jonah Hex, was killed and stuffed and mounted).
The tale of the Fleisher suit takes a modestly lengthy section of the book in various interview segments, which is then followed by another long section in straight reportage. The trial (in November 1986) took four weeks. After 1½ hours of deliberation, the jury declared that Fleisher had not established his claims against the defendants, and the case was closed.
The episode cost a lot, and Groth had to raise money to pay the bills—which he did.
Other adventures discussed include the outrageous miscarriage of justice in the case of Mike Diana, whose freedom of expression was curtailed in a draconian ruling that forbade him from drawing. And the Dennis Kitchen obsession.
When Kitchen Sink was faltering, Dennis brought it back to life briefly by merging with Tundra. Kitchen described the merger as if Kitchen Sink bought Tundra, but it was more likely the other way around: Tundra was rolling in money; Kitchen Sink was not. Groth was determined to get to the truth of the matter, but he was frustrated by members of his own staff who, it is alleged, were conspiring with Kitchen to suppress the truth and maintain the fiction.
This sort of behind-the-scenes stuff occurs frequently in We Told You So.
The book’s only flaw—and it is considerable—is that it falls shy of meeting the expectations prompted by the title. What Groth and the Journal ostensibly told us is that comics were art and ought to be held to the kinds of standards all art ostensibly strives to meet. But what those standards are is mostly missing from this tome. What is a good comic book that meets aesthetic standards? I have an answer (which I’ve been flogging in This Corner and elsewhere for forty years), but the Journal’s answer is not readily apparent in this book.
Instead, what we have is gossip about people. Most of the interviews (judging from what appears herein) descend, pretty quickly, into discussions of the personalities and quirks of the people who passed through the Fantagraphics doors as staff members, editors in particular.
The names of editors (i.e., managing editors mostly; Groth is the editor) are sprinkled throughout the volume, and I must confess that many of them I never heard of or can’t remember. I suppose I was dealing most with Gary when submitting my columns. At least, early on. But eventually, he passed me along to the next echelon. I remember Tom Spurgeon, for example; that may be because he held the job longer than anyone else. (Five years, I think it was.)
I also remember Carol Sobocinksi, who was the chief villain in the Kitchen conspiracy. I had met here at the Chicago Comic Con before she was the Journal editor. Or maybe it was after. Probably after because I remember her encapsulation of her experiences at Fantagraphics being that Groth and his minions seemed interested only in going off into the hills to practice shooting guns at targets.
There are photographs in the book of one of these forays into the joys of firearms, but it is hardly represented as a major preoccupation.
Whatever its flaws—minor at most—the book is informative and fun to read. It’s full of historical information about the life and hard times of the Journal with insight into the personalities of the crusaders who have made The Comics Journal the flagship of intelligent commentary on the art of the comics. Although the book doesn’t tell us what Fantagraphics standards are, the company’s products stand as exemplars of those standards.
The physical dimensions of the book I take to be symbolic: bulking large, it is a monument to the singular dedication of its founders and perpetrators. They gave their lives over to a cause they passionately believed in. And they kept after it, week after week, month after month, year after year. They kept at it through bad times and good. They were relentless. And dedicated.
I keep returning to parts I’ve only skimmed, and I find new nuggets of information to savor.
Fantagraphics is known for publishing some works that the editors knew wouldn’t be commercially successful. What other publisher regularly does anything like it? Yes, they also launched Eros, the pornographic keyhole of Fantagraphics. But the sleazy comics about sex supported the idealism of the rest of the enterprise—the crusading and standard-setting.
The monument also commemorates the Fanta success. Through sheer doggedness, Groth and company managed to do what they set out to do—to inspire works that exemplified excellence in comics, to needle an industry into doing better by its artform. The book offers ample insight into the process while celebrating the achievement.
Loaded with illustrative matter, the book is a sideshow as well as a main event. The pictures testify to the variety of the medium and the energy of the company’s endeavors. The big visual moments of the book slip by, almost evading notice— several photos of Groth wearing something other than a t-shirt; in one, he’s in a white dinner jacket with a black bow tie. Another shows him in bondage, modeling for someone’s artistic endeavor. Now that’s history.
GROTH KNEW HE WANTED TO BECOME A PUBLISHER from the age of 12. And it didn’t matter, much, what he would publish. He and Catron discovered a mutual interest in, first, journalism, then comics. “We both wanted to engage in criticism and journalism and publishing,” said Groth.
Groth was, after several false starts, a journalism major in college; then he dropped out. Catron was also a journalism major. Their first collaboration was in publishing a magazine, Sounds Fine, about rock music collecting. Next, they got into comics journalism by acquiring The Nostalgia Journal, which they quickly converted to a comics news and reviews publication—i.e., The Comics Journal. Catron was involved in the journalism part of the magazine; Groth, in the criticism part.
Said Groth: “What I wanted to do with the magazine was to provoke. I had an attitude and a point of view. ... I wanted people to pay attention. I wanted to cause trouble because I thought that’s what was needed at that moment in time.”
During his brief “detour” to college and the workaday world, Groth hadn’t been reading comics. When he got back into reading them— “I was horrified at my new perception. It was a bunch of crap. That’s why the tone of the magazine for the first few years was so incendiary. I couldn’t believe what crap it was. ... I thought comics should be held to the same standards as other art forms. We were trying to elevate the accepted standards of the time. I was trying to push people’s faces into the idea that this stuff is just lousy and should be better. ... We shouldn’t tolerate less.”
But what are those standards? And who, besides the Bros Hernandez, has met them? After reading through the book, I can’t tell you what those standards are except by inference from the works Fantagraphics has published.
My Dubious Adventures with the Journal
Since my role, however slight, in writing for the Journal for 36 years isn’t acknowledged in We Told You So, I’ve decided to make up for the deficiency here and, like everyone interviewed in the book, rehearse some of my history with it while I have your attention.
Because We Told You So is laced, fore and aft, with photographs of its sundry actors, I’ll do the same here.
Popular mythology to the contrary notwithstanding, I wasn’t there at the beginning. That was Adam. And then came Eve. That was, admittedly, a long time ago. But shortly thereafter, I was at The Comics Journal, doing a column called “The Reticulated Rainbow.” That was in issue No. 54, March 1980. Just 27 issues and only four years into the 300-issue 40-year Fantagraphics run of the magazine.
I started reading it with the earliest issues when it was The Nostalgia Journal, No.27 to be exact—the first issue under Groth’s editor/ownership. And while I enjoyed the magazine, I thought the prevailing note of scorn for comics in the early years was a bit too much. I finally came aboard with the notion that I’d write a column that found something good to say about comics.
With the fifth Fantagraphics issue (January 1977), the periodical acquired its present name, The Comics Journal, relinquishing the old name because the new management’s vision was more focused on comics and less on peripheral interests like sf and old movies. And by the end of the year, the Journal assumed magazine format with a slick paper cover.
The Journal continued reporting the facts in the comics industry, and Gary continued calling ’em as he saw ’em. And then with No. 39 in April 1978, a new writer joined in the chorus. Marilyn Bethke began a series of “reviews” of other fan publications. She, too, called ’em as she saw ’em.
Her first target was Jim Steranko’s Mediascene, which she dubbed “Mediocrescene,” accusing Steranko of “linguistic redundancies, cliches, misunderstood metaphors, and bad grammar.” In No. 40, Bethke had the old RBCC (Rocket’s Blast Comicollector) in her sights. Jim Van Hise’s stewardship of RBCC, “the oldest fanzine in comics history” founded in Florida in late 1961 by Gordon Love, was a smorgasbord of comics and sf and ads in every issue, and in recognition of the grab-bag content, Bethke reviewed each of the magazine’s features and departments individually.
At the time, I was producing a column there with the title Comicopia. Like the cornucopia that inspired the name, it was intended to overflow with all things comics. Bethke found the column “barely interesting,” its logic self-contradictory, its comparisons invalid, forced or contrived, its style colorless, its conclusions ludicrous, its opinions disguised as analysis, and its middle-aged author preoccupied with out-dated ideas about women and sex.
Since that time, of course, I have changed. I’m no longer middle-aged. I am now simply aged.
Bethke went on to review other fanzines in the next several issues of the Journal and then disappeared forever. (She’s not in We Told You So.) Presumably, she had grown out of her interest in comics or in visiting upon unsuspecting readers her opinions disguised as analysis while committing more self-contradictory, contrived, colorless, and ludicrous vituperative contumely of the sort that distinguished her short but incendiary run in the magazine.
I, however, grew older but never out. And I continued to pursue a lifelong interest in comics. Shortly after the Bethke barrage, I wrote the Journal a letter (about superhero groups like JSA and JLA and the Legion), and Gary invited me to contribute to the magazine.
I thanked him for his interest and the invitation, but declined. I have a sometimes self-sabotaging sense of loyalty, and at that time, I thought if I started writing for the Journal, it’d be a sort of betrayal of RBCC. Gary persisted, though, and asked me again several months later. This time, I accepted the invitation—with a proviso. I wanted every column I did for the Journal to conclude with a footnote saying the reader could find more displays of my obsessions at RBCC. I think Gary agreed to that, but it never happened: about then, Van Hise moved from Florida to California, and the magazine stopped appearing regularly. Before too long, it was defunct. And I was ensconced at the Journal.
I AM REHEARSING THIS TEDIOUS HISTORY in my usual colorless but deathless prose because it provides a little context for the rest of this foray into Little Known Facts—namely, that the Journal does not demand of its contributors adherence to any sort of Party Line. At least, I’ve never heard such a demand.
In fact, Bethke, in her critique of the Journal (which she found self-contradictory in that its virtues were its hubris) (try making sense of that), complained that the magazine “has no real editorial personality.” There was, she implied, no Party Line: “The readers simply don’t know where the editors stand on the issues presented. The Comics Journal has been accused of muck-raking, yellow journalism, and even lying, but I have never read an adequate explanation of the editors’ motives, ethics, ideals and objectives for their magazine.”
If the Journal had a Party Line, probably I wouldn’t be there—because if it had a Party Line, Bethke’s view would have been the Journal’s, and if the Journal harbored her opinion of my harmless drudgery, Gary, presumably, would not have invited this middle-aged man with outdated opinions to write for the magazine. Or so it would seem.
On the other hand, I’ve always suspected that Gary invited me aboard because he was looking for a way to inject a B-movie sensibility into the enterprise, the sort of critical attitude that can appreciate mainstream funnybooks. Fortunately for him, he came to the right place: as an unapologetic Randolph Scott fan, I’m just the B-movie mentality that can find something in the latest X-travaganza to cheer about. As tiresome as these repetitive formulaic comic book plots are, we can at least usually enjoy the pictures, which, as a cartoonist myself, I perused comics to enjoy. Still do.
Despite the celebrated elitist belligerence of the magazine, I’ve never been directed or even asked to attack anyone. I’ve never been directed to do anything except what I wanted to do, and after proposing a topic and getting it cleared by whatever Editorial Powers are currently enthroned, I’ve never had a column spiked. (Well, that’s not quite true: one was once. But that was such an exception that it proveth the rule. In any event, I’ve never been told to adjust my attitude.)
But maybe my testimony isn’t really needed. The evidence for the absence of a Party Line is readily apparent in such issues of the Journal as No. 232 in which Gary savages Scott McCloud’s digital vision on pages 32-40 while publishing Charles Hatfield’s respectful (not to say idolatrous) interview with McCloud on pages 64-79, giving twice the space to a view Gary doesn’t hold himself.
The Journal has a reputation for elitist muck-raking and multi-syllabic name-calling, but that’s not because everyone is shouting in unison. It’s just because the Journal pursues the news in the industry aggressively and encourages the expression of opinion. Constitutionally, the Journal seems to me to be more a forum than a force although as a forum, it has become a force, an influence for excellence and maturity in the art form.
AND WHILE I STILL HAVE YOUR ATTENTION, I’d like to say a word about Gary’s allegedly horrendous editorial assault in 1991 upon the recently (then) deceased Carol Kalish, who, as Vice President of New Product Development for Marvel Comics, touted comics to comic book specialty stores in the formative years of that branch of the industry.
The word is “hogwash.”
Some of the most inflammatory of Groth’s comments about Kalish are quoted in We Told You So when he reviews the episode. But his essay over-all as it was initially published is decidedly not an attack on Kalish. It is, rather, an attack upon The Comics Buyer’s Guide (formerly Alan Light’s TBG), which had, in the two months since Kalish’s death “at the tragically young age of 36" (Gary’s words), devoted pages and pages of its letters column to lugubrious expressions of grief by countless fans and an occasional pro who had known the woman and who would now miss her.
I remember thinking at the time that this much attention lavished upon a member of the Marvel sales force seemed wildly out of proportion. Gary’s view—that Kalish did her job “brilliantly” (“her mind was, quite simply, better, her instincts quicker, than anyone else’s in an analogous position within the comics industry”) while at the same time acknowledging that her job “was to sell as much semi-literate junk to a gullible public as humanly possible”—seemed clear-eyed and accurate rather than bathetic and sentimental, as much of the testifying had been to that point.
If anything, his jeremiad was a tribute to Kalish’s talent, personality, and, even, honesty in a society that often advances the careers of untalented dissembling nerds.
After reading what Gary wrote, I had a much clearer appreciation of Kalish’s contribution to the comics industry than I had derived from all of the grieving letters in CBG. And it was, as I said, the excess at CBG that Gary was attacking, not Kalish.
Gary was, as usual, a little intemperate in his choice of words. I’m not sure, for example, that I would have called Kalish a “shill” for Marvel Comics, but I admired the pungent impact of the term. Moreover, Gary was trying to make a point, and sometimes, as the farmer discovered in attempting to persuade a stubborn mule, it’s necessary to attract their attention first, so you hit them over the head with a two-by-four.
And if we are to judge from subsequent performance, CBG probably agreed that its coverage of Kalish’s death had been exorbitant: never again would it expend as much space on the death of an individual—not even on Jack Kirby when he died. In contrast, the Journal devoted almost an entire issue to memorializing Kirby; but Kirby, like Carl Barks, was a creator of comics not a peddler of them.
In extolling the work of Kirby and Barks and Kurtzman and other giants of accomplishment in the medium, the Journal undoubtedly advanced standards of excellence. That’s what it set out to do, and it did it.
The company’s history is remarkable. Sometimes more than remarkable—heroic. It pulled itself up by its own boostraps—as American as apple pie and Davy Crockett. And its signal achievements are exemplary. The fact that it survived and sustained its vision the whole time is nothing short of stupendous.
P.S. In case you have forgotten, Fantagraphics published my magnum opus, Meanwhile: The Life and Art of Milton Caniff, Creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. It’s offered for sale hereabouts, but this article is not evidence of collusion. Just admiration.